Remnants of WWII: The History Behind Britain’s “Ghost Villages” That Have Become “an Accidental Tourist Attraction”

Houses, now used for military training are seen as the 10th New Year's Eve peace vigil is held inside the 700-year-old nearby St Giles church in the village of Imber on December 31, 2011 on Salisbury Plain, England.
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During World War II, England was faced with an urgent need to increase training among its troops in target practice and military maneuvers. Its Ministry of Defense elected to take over a number of villages for this purpose, at the time offering residents hope that the requisition would be a temporary one. Alas, promises made about an eventual return would remain unfulfilled, and a handful of those sites — including the villages of Imber, Tyneham, and Balsdean — would become “ghost villages,” lingering empty as an eerie remembrance of another era.

For such locations that remain under the domain of the Ministry of Defense, visitors are allowed to visit for a limited number of “open days” per year, up to 50. As it happens, these historic, abandoned villages, stranded in time, continue to draw a crowd.

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The Salisbury Plain Training Area of Imber remains the largest military training site in the U.K., although the village remains empty of residents and has no postal code, according to the BBC. While post-war residents waged a “Forever Imber” campaign in an effort to have their village returned to them, and the matter was presented for consideration in the House of Lords, ultimately their pleas fell upon deaf ears.  

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St. Giles Church, a historic 13th century building, has since been restored and holds an annual Remembrance Day service, but beyond this structure, only the skeletal remains of a few additional buildings can be found. Even so, Imber drew roughly 16,000 visitors yearly before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the location remains a source of fascination for many. Imberbus  — a vintage bus service that takes passengers to the “lost village” — runs once per year, with proceeds going to charity. (This year, Imberbus will travel to Imber on August 19.) 

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A similar situation befell the village of Tyneham, which also has no current residents. After Winston Churchill ordered Tyneham serve as a location for D-day landings practice, according to The Guardian, residents left a poignant note pinned to its church door, which read, “We have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations, to help win the war … We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”

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Per the BBC, Tyneham was chosen as a training location also due to its small size and secluded location. Residents found themselves with a scant 28 days to evacuate. Following the end of World War II, the government opted to utilize the area for live-firing practice by tanks and armored vehicles. As was the case with Imber, former residents of Tyneham launched a campaign to reclaim their homes, and a Parliament debate took place in the 1960s, but the area would ultimately remain under the government’s control. Today, the site is open to visitors on most weekends and during certain holidays, drawing upward of 185,000 visitors annually.

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“The best way to describe it is an accidental tourist attraction,” said Lynda Price, who led the conservation and development of Tyneham from 1994-2019.

East of Brighton, Balsdean is yet another village that suffered a similar fate — only a handful of farm buildings can now be found there, The Guardian reports. The village served as a training site for the Canadian army in 1942, which all but devastated the hamlet that once included a manor house, church, and asylum.

St. Mary's Church in Tyneham Ian Woolcock/ Alamy Stock Photo

Still, a silver lining of sorts has emerged from the sequestering of such villages: a return to a more vibrant natural order, including a number of rare species of wildlife. In Imber, “there are a myriad of rare, uncommon and protected species that thrive on the plain, and for this reason, it qualifies as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation,” Jemma Batten, who manages the Plain Conservation project, told the BBC. The Sainfoin bee is a rarity that only graces a few sites within the Salisbury Plain area. Likewise, the Tyneham coast is the only current refuge of the Lulworth Skipper butterfly.

While the history of families removed from their homes amid war leaves a somber legacy, the thriving natural environment and historical interest of abruptly-abandoned “ghost villages” serve as an ongoing testament to the ways in which there is beauty amid the ruins.

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